Celebration in the Netherlands:  Midwinter Horn Blowing

Midwinter Horn Blowing

Map of the Netherlands

Figure 1: Lonely Planet, map of The Netherlands



People of the Netherlands celebrate blowing horns from the Christian Advent, the Sunday nearest November 30, through January six, the Epiphany.  For celebrants of Christianity the horns are blown in order to commemorate the birth of Christ.  Also, pagans celebrate the midwinter horn blowing in order to ward off evil spirits that threaten to vanish light from the countryside.  The midwinter horns are either wet or dry, producing varying pitches that bellow for miles.  Together, the people of the Netherlands celebrate midwinter horn blowing in order to commemorate the birth of christ, dispell spirits thought to inhabit the countryside and welcome the beginning of the new year.


F12.jpg   Additional Image 2

(Figure 2, top: Playing near the old well, Bert van Loon) (Figure 3, bottom: Angel with horn, George Garriques)


In The Netherlands, from the eve of the Christian Advent through Epiphany, horns are blown to announce the birth of Christ.  The horns reverberate throughout the farms of the countryside in order to commuicate with neighbors, celebrate the winter solstice, and for others, ward off evil spirits that would otherwise bring disaster.  As a means of communication, this music brings neighbors together through the expression of song.  Anglo-Saxons used to believe that in the dark days of winter, time would begin to stand still; it was feared that the life-bringing sun would be forever expelled by these evil forces of the night.  Other highly spirited people would pray, exerting themselves through sacrifice in order to become one with their inner-divinity (Egan 2004).  Suddenly they would come face to face with this inner-god and flood with light, radiating like the sun (see figure 3).  When the Christians arrived, the tradition gathered a second meaning:  "Christ is born." (Rinsma 1973).  For christians and pagans, the celebration has different significance: christians blow midwinter horns in order to celebrate the birht of Christ while pagans believe that the sound expels evil spirits; both blow the horns during the passing of the winter solstice, beckoning a new year of light. 


Context of Midwinter Horn Blowing

The Netherlands (officially called Kingdom of the Netherlands) lies in the northern hemisphere's temperate maritime zone. The average temperature is between two degrees celcius in January and seventeen degrees celcius in July.  The damp climate allows for favorable stock breeding pastures, and horticulure dominates the coastal regions.  The soil of the north is mainly consistent of sand and gravel, while in the south includes mainly clay and peat.  The capitol is Amsterdam, and the country is located in western Europe, bordering the North Sea, between Belgium and Germany.

1500 A.D. is assumed the first year that were blown  the midwinter horns.  In the 1st century BCE, Roman armies defeated Germanic and Celtic tribes that inhabited the area that is today The Netherlands.  In AD 300, though, germanic tribes invaded and there was a conversion to Christianity.  In 800, Charlemagne began to rule the territory, and during the 9th and 10th centuries, vikings of Scandinavia raided the coastal areas, leading to the fortification of many towns.  In the next 300 years, increased trade developed and wealthy merchants began to challenge the power of Dukes throughout the countryside. a In the 16th century, the Low Countries, as the land was as that time reffered, passed through the contol of the dukes of Bourgogne to the Habsburg emperor Charles V.  The protestant revolutionaries brought The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg into their present freedom.  The language is Dutch and Frisian is also spoken in the north.  Flemish spoken second  (The Holland Ring, 1997-2004).


Origins of Midwinter Horn Blowing

The ancient tradition of midwinter horn blowing, known as midwinterhoornblazen, dates back as far as 1500 A.D., perhaps a few decades earlier.  It is a Germanic custom that has been practiced since before the onset of Christianity. The custom takes place in celebration of the dark time of winter, serving duel functions. The blowing of the midwinter horns here celebrates the solstice when the days begin to again lengthen. Light waning from the countryside returns and the horns triumph the previous year, welcoming the new.  The horns are also thought to scare away evil spirits that haunt the countryside, threatening to steal the earth's light for eternity. These beliefs remain for many while the lengthy darkness of the final short days of the year is attributed to evil ghosts that are attempting to strip light from the earth.  The sound banishes the ghosts and sustains light through bellowing horns (Straalen 1986). From a Christian perspective, the horns announce the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Janssen et al. 2004).



Midwinter Horns may be either wet or dry as will be discussed in the Artifact section. Wet horns are placed on the edge of the well for support when playing as they are very heavy.  They are heavy because of the water that is frozen on thier inside; the wells are alos a source of water for the horn's moisture.  Producing a good sound from the horn requires a decent amount of effort.  You need good lip tension, or embouchure, such as is required in playing the French horn and you you also need to apply ample air pressure. Experienced players are able to emit seven different pitches, a technique comparable to the playing of a trumpet; these notes are from the natural harmonic series. Throughout the season, the sounds from the horn improve while practice makes perfect (sometimes over a few years!), and while January weather conditions allow for the most efficient reverberation of horn toots, the fully frozen winter countryside facilitates the greatest transfer of sound (see figure 4). Long ago, a farmer and his children would participate in playing the horn, taking turns while horns are never tuned for harmonization!  The melancholy sound varies from player to player and there exists only a basic melody. Without standard tuning, the horns are only intended as solo instruments and players immitate each other simultaneoulsy.  

Today, you  hear the horns throughout the advent period, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Epiphany of the Christian church calendar.   Blowing the midwinter horn outside of the six weeks of advent is prohibited, even for practice.  Each village of the eastern part of the Netherlands, called Twenthe, has its own melancholy version of the sound. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent Sunday, through Christmas Eve, farmers of this rural eastern part of the Netherlands blow midwinter horns. Small groups will perform from different positions and play in “call and response,” a practice that echoes when one farmer plays to a neighboring farmhouse, conversing through the horns.  Competitions take place on January sixth in order to decide the most capable musicians.  Judgment "is difficult but the "melody", the loudness and the technique of playing is very important. The judges are music-experts," said Bert Van Loon.of the Netherlands.   The sound can sometimes be heard up to three miles away!  Traditionally, midwinter horn blowing has been celebrateed only in the eastern part of the Netheralands, around and to the north of Enschede, a small region of only 10 square kilometers, but is found also in nearby Germany and to the south of Enchede (see figure 1).



The midwinter horn, or midwinterhoorn, is a long horn instrument carved out of the wood of birch, alder, willow or poplar trees. No two horns are ever made the same while the proceses of carving and gluing always produce a slightly different instrument. Variations in length, smoothness of the timber and the width of the horn result in different sounds; the horn may be produced in a “wet” or “dry” fashion. Variations in the length of horn are important while they vary the amount of tones that can be played. The longer the horn, the easier that it is to produce a sound and the more pitches that the horn is capable of making. The diameter must be large enough and the inner part of the horn smooth enough, in order that the horn properly resonate to make a sound.  First, the size of the piece of wood is shaped. Secondly, the horn-shaped wood is sawn into two halves, and the inside gouged out.  A bulrush, or thick plant such as thatch, is glued between the two separated halves.  This splitting and gouging of the piece of timber is followed by the drilling of a hole for a mouthpiece, or Hap, at the smallest end of the horn.  Dry horns must always be kept dry. Occasionally, the dry horn's two halves split and glue is used to reattach. Making a “wet horn” requires placing the horn underwater after ruiniting the two halves, usually in a well, and the bulrush swells, sometimes to the point of freezing. If the inside of the horn freezes, the sound produced is very bright due to the horns' smoothness; eventually, by the end of the season, the wet horn dries out.  For proper storage during the season, wet horns are placed to hang within a well in order that they freeze.  Traditional horns have no paint on the interior, rings or metal parts; the length is between 3.5 and 5 feet long with a diameter of 2.5 inches at the mouthpiece and 6 inches at the other end. The mouthpiece is usually made out of elderberry wood. Before the mouthpiece is fitted into the horn, the core of the elderberry is removed. All players have their own personal mouthpiece, which must be kept separate from the horn in storage.




Prognosis for Midwinter Horn Blowing

Until the 1960's, people mainly emigrated from the netherlands.  Today, however, more than sixteen million inhabit the Netherlands, and the population increases each year.  It is one of the most densly populated countries in the world.  While the tradition declined in the early 20th century, enthusiasts from within the Twenthe region have since begun to rekindle the celebration with new vitality. The fifties saw increased celebration when participants began to remember the “melody.” Horns began to be manufactured out of wood again and newer horns made of tin decreased in popularity and thus began the spirit of revitalization. The cultural bond has not been breached and the ideas of the past have been rejuvenated and continue to reenter the Netherlands.   The horns are again souding to unify the Dutch, a connection Victor and Edith Turner define as communitas (205).  The people have united outside of the social bonds that are recognized inside of the Netherlands and its neighboring countries.  The Dutch have replaced silence with sound, convening with neighbors around thier homes as waves of sound travel from afar. They celebrate the sound of the midwinter.  These traditional melodies from 1500 A.D. have again been stirred, their shape resonating throughout the Netherlands.  Given present conditions, as the Dutch population continues to grow, practice of Midwinter Horn Blowing will continue to increase in popularity.



As all cultures celebrate traditions, so do the people of the Netherlands.  The tradition of midwinter horn blowing is a cultural device that brings citizens together in practice of the ideas their ancestors had initiated.  The Dutch continue today to blow horns for six weeks throughout the winter season as a communal practice, a social relationship.  As one horn thunders from a neighboring farm, another farmer responds, resonating in kind.  Music as a means of expression has always existed between people of both similar and different cultures.  The communication through music will always connect humans to one another, the Dutch perpetuating this spirit in the sound waves of the midwinter horns.


Internet References Cited

  • Figure 1: Lonely Planet website, Netherlands Map. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/europe/netherlands/

  • The website exhibited a picture of the Netherlands, with an option to both zoom in, and, zoom out on the image.

  • Figure 2:  Bert van Loon, an email correspondence

  • Bill Egan, 1999-2004.   Netherlands.  http://christmas-world.freeservers.com/netherlands.html

  • Bil Egan's website discussed Christmas traditions in the Netherlands, and had a section focusing on The Twente region's Midwinter Horn Blowing.
  • The Holland Ring.  Royal Netherlands Embassy. Dutch Touch Webdesign, 1997-2004.  http://www.thehollandring.com/toen-nu.shtml

  • The Holland Ring website explored the immigration, language, climate, population, religion and landscape of the Netherlands.
  • http://www.midwinterhoornblazentwenthe.nl/ SMT 2003. Accessed 10/29/04

  • The official site of The Midwinterhoorn Foundation Twenthe, this website contained pages devoted to an introduction of the horns, a description of the horns, playing the instrument, their history, seasonal descriptions, a Midwinter Horn blowing contest, a foundation page, a communities page, an informational page, and a sound page.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Figure 3: Los Angeles Times, Midwinter Issue.  George Garriques, January 1, 1901 http://www.ulwaf.com/LA-1900s/index04.html

    This website contained articles, advertisements and illustrations concerning the City  of Los Angeles at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • The Midwinter Horn.  Rinsma, W. Sunrise magazine, December 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press, http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/seasons/4s-rins.htm
  • This website contained an objective description of the celebration of Midwinter Horn Blowing.
  • Dorson, Richard M. 1982  Material Components in CelebrationIn Celebration:  Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Turner, ed, pp. 33-57.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.
  • “Midwinter Horn Sounds.”  Janssen, Roel. Europe , 01914545, Dec96/Jan97, Issue 362 Europe, p37, 2p Item: 9709200609 Ebsco Publishing, 2004. Database: Academic Search Premier.

  • "The Book of Holidays Around the World."  Straalen, Alice Van.  E.P. Datton, New York, 198

  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner.  1982  Religious Celebrations:  Studies in Festivity and Ritual.  Victor Turner, ed, pp. 201-219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.


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